Silencing the Dead: Invoking and Avoiding the Pitfalls of the Dead Man s Act

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1 Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel Springfield, Illinois IDC Quarterly Volume 23, Number 1 ( ) Medical Malpractice By: Dina L. Torrisi and Edna L. McLain HeplerBroom LLC, Chicago Silencing the Dead: Invoking and Avoiding the Pitfalls of the Dead Man s Act Since 1867, some incarnation of the Dead Man s Act ( the Act ) has been on the books in Illinois, and in 1873, the Illinois Supreme Court interpreted the Act s purpose as placing living and deceased parties upon a perfect equality. Alexander v. Hoffman, 70 Ill. 114, 118 (Ill. 1873). This purpose has expanded to include the prevention of fraudulent claims against estates. Gunn v. Sobucki, 216 Ill. 2d 602, 611 (Ill. 2005). The Act accomplishes this dual purpose by removing the temptation of a survivor to testify to matters that cannot be rebutted due to death of the only other party to the conversation or event. Gunn, 216 Ill. 2d at 611. Essentially, the Act renders the survivor incompetent to testify on his own behalf about conversations with the decedent or about events that occurred in the presence of the decedent. The Act only bars that evidence which the decedent could have refuted. Id. at 609. The Act prevents the admission of testimony concerning conversations with a decedent or any events that took place in the decedent s presence, but like a privilege, it must be properly invoked to avoid waiving its protections. This article is meant to help an attorney navigate the pitfalls inherent in the Act s application and to provide some guidance on how to deal with the Act should it be invoked in your case. The current version of the Act provides in pertinent part: In the trial of any action in which any party sues or defends as the representative of a deceased person or person under a legal disability, no adverse party or person directly interested in the action shall be allowed to testify on his or her own behalf to any conversation with the deceased or person under legal disability or to any event which took place in the presence of the deceased or person under legal disability 735 ILCS 5/ The privilege belongs to the decedent s representative, which is defined by the statute as an executor, administrator, heir or legatee of the decedent s estate. 735 ILCS 5/ Only the decedent s representative can invoke the Act, and only an adverse party or person directly interested in the action is barred from testifying about conversations with the decedent or events that took place in the decedent s presence. Balma v. Henry, 404 Ill. App. 3d 233 (2d Dist. 2010). A person directly interested has been defined as someone with a direct and immediate gain or loss from a judgment or decree in the case. People v. $5,608 U.S. Currency, 359 Ill. App. 3d 891, 895 (2d Dist. 2005). Therefore, the Act may be used to bar someone like an adverse party s spouse from testifying to certain conversations or events involving a decedent. However, the Act does not bar the testimony of Page 1 of 5

2 non-party witnesses, like treating physicians in a medical negligence case, from testifying to conversations or events involving the decedent. Because the application of the Act could severely restrict a surviving party s claims or defenses, the Act contains certain exceptions. These exceptions have generated several opinions from various Illinois courts concerning the applicability of the Act in both the pre-trial and trial stages. For purposes of this article, we will limit our discussion to the two exceptions most likely to be encountered in a medical malpractice case. These exceptions are: (a) If any person testifies on behalf of the representative to any conversation with the deceased or person under legal disability or to any event which took place in the presence of the deceased or person under legal disability, any adverse party or interested person, if otherwise competent, may testify concerning the same conversation or event. (b) If the deposition of the deceased or person under legal disability is admitted in evidence on behalf of the representative, any adverse party or interested person, if otherwise competent, may testify concerning the same matters admitted in evidence. 735 ILCS 5/ The defendants in Balma v. Henry learned the hard way that the Act and its exceptions come into play even in pre-trial proceedings. 404 Ill. App. 3d 233 (2d Dist. 2010). In Balma, the plaintiffs were injured in an auto accident when a defendant, Cynthia Grosvenor, rear-ended the other defendant, Edward Henry, pushing his vehicle into the path of the plaintiffs car. Grosvenor moved for summary judgment after Henry died from unrelated causes four months after his discovery deposition. Grosvenor argued that Henry s deposition testimony was now inadmissible under the Dead Man s Act, and as a result, neither she nor the plaintiffs could testify about the events leading up to the accident. Balma, 404 Ill. App. 3d at 236. Because there would be no admissible evidence of how the accident occurred, Grosvenor argued she was entitled to summary judgment, and she further moved, pursuant to the Act, to strike Henry s estate from citing his deposition testimony in its motion for summary judgment. Id. Although the trial court granted the summary judgment motions and the motion to strike, it granted plaintiff s motion for interlocutory appeal pursuant to Supreme Court Rule 308(a) and certified a question to the First District asking whether or not the admissions made by the defendants in their discovery depositions would be barred by the Dead Man s Act. Id. at 237. In considering the certified question, the appellate court emphasized that the right to invoke the Act belonged to Henry s estate, not an adverse party like Grosvenor, and the estate waived the privilege by attaching and relying upon Henry s deposition testimony in its motion for summary judgment. Balma, 404 Ill. App. 3d at 239. Therefore, Grosvenor could not assert the Dead Man s Act to bar Henry s deposition. The court further went on to state that Grosvenor s deposition testimony concerning the accident and her actions immediately prior to the collisions were admissible against her since these things took place outside of Henry s presence and would not be barred by the Act. Id. at Therefore, the court answered the certified question in the affirmative and remanded the case to the trial court for further handling. Id. at But what would have happened if the decedent s representative had not waived the privilege? The First District considered this scenario in Groce v. So. Chicago Comm. Hosp., 282 Ill. App. 3d 1004 (1st Dist. 1996). In Groce, the decedent s estate filed a medical negligence case against South Chicago Community Hospital and a physician, alleging that the physician s failure to monitor the decedent s condition and to recommend further follow-up after a modified radical mastectomy lead to her death. Groce, 282 Ill. App. 3d at The physician filed his first summary judgment motion attaching his own affidavit claiming that he advised the decedent before and after surgery that she needed follow-up care and Page 2 of 5

3 possibly an evaluation by an oncologist. Id. at The plaintiff invoked the Act and argued that the physician s affidavit violated the Act because it constituted testimony by an adverse witness to conversations with the decedent. The trial court agreed and denied the physician s first summary judgment motion. Id. A few years later, the physician filed a second summary judgment motion, relying on his own deposition testimony and the deposition testimony from plaintiff s expert and another treating physician. Id. The trial court granted the second motion for summary judgment. On appeal, the First District considered whether the physician could rely upon his own deposition testimony concerning conversations with the deceased plaintiff to support his summary judgment motion. Id. at Finding that the plaintiff had invoked and not waived the Act, the physician, as the adverse party, could not rely upon his own deposition testimony concerning any conversations he had with the decedent. Id. at Further, the remaining testimony by other witnesses the physician relied upon, while not barred by the Dead Man s Act, lacked evidentiary support for his summary judgment motion. Id. Thus, the appellate court reversed the trial court s decision and remanded the case. Id. at Balma and Groce serve as cautionary tales for practitioners to recognize that what may be discoverable is not necessarily admissible at the summary judgment stage. Therefore, when handling a case with a deceased plaintiff, a defense attorney should look for witnesses without a direct interest in the case to provide corroborating testimony as to conversations or events that occurred in the decedent s presence. Do not rely solely upon the client s testimony about conversations or events because it may not be admissible for summary judgment purposes. Further, when representing a deceased client, do not attach and rely upon the deceased client s deposition testimony, if available, as there is a risk of waiving the Act s protection. At the trial stage, the Act and its protections are typically invoked through motions in limine. For example, in Malanowski v. Jabamoni, the decedent s husband filed a wrongful death case against the defendant physician for failure to diagnose the decedent s breast cancer. 332 Ill. App. 3d 8 (1st Dist. 2002). The plaintiff filed a motion in limine prior to trial to bar the defendant from testifying to any conversations with the decedent during a routine examination on July 31, Id. at 11. The trial court denied the plaintiff s motion, and the plaintiff failed to renew his objections at trial. Id. During direct examination, the plaintiff s expert, Dr. Seltzer, testified about the meaning of the defendant s progress note and further stated that the defendant violated the standard of care by failing to offer a node biopsy, to advise the decedent that she could have cancer, and to tell the decedent to return in a timely fashion to evaluate a lump found on July 31, Id. at 12. With no objections from the plaintiff, the defendant testified on direct examination in her case-in-chief that she told the decedent the lump could be cancerous, that the decedent would need to see a surgeon for excision if the lump were cancerous, and that she should come back for a visit in a few weeks for further evaluation. Id. at At the close of all evidence, the jury found in favor of the defendant, and plaintiff appealed. The First District found that the plaintiff opened the door to the defendant s testimony and waived the Act when he elicited testimony from his expert about the meaning of the defendant s progress note and what the defendant failed to tell the decedent. Malanowski, 332 Ill. App. 3d at 13. This fell squarely within the exceptions to the Act s applicability, and allowing the defendant to testify to her version of events and conversations furthered the purpose of the Act itself by putting both parties on equal footing. Id. As the court explained, allowing the representative of the deceased to introduce his version of what course of action Dr. Jabamoni recommended or failed to recommend, without giving an equal opportunity to Dr. Jabamoni, would not advance the policy behind the Act. Id. Further, by failing to object to the testimony at trial, plaintiff waived his objections for appellate purposes. Id. at 12. The First District recently revisited these concepts in Fleming v. Moswin IL App (1st) B. In Fleming, the plaintiff filed a medical malpractice action against several defendants, including a urologist, for failure to diagnose bladder cancer that resulted in her death in The Page 3 of 5

4 main issue was whether the urologist ordered and discussed a cystoscopy procedure with the decedent between March and November Fleming v. Moswin IL App (1st) B, 94. The plaintiff filed several motions in limine to bar, pursuant to the Act, certain anticipated testimony from the urologist about conversations he had with the decedent during several office visits. Id. 9. The trial court agreed that the urologist would be barred from giving such testimony unless the plaintiff opened the door. Id. 11. During trial, the plaintiff s expert testified about the urologist s progress notes and deposition testimony and concluded that the urologist never offered the decedent a cystoscopy or that she had refused one. Id. 17, 94. The urologist testified in his own case on direct examination that he had recommended a cystoscopy multiple times, and the decedent had refused the procedure. Id. 17. The jury returned a verdict in the defendants favor. Id. Citing cases like Malanowski, the First District again concluded that the plaintiff had waived the protections of the Act by eliciting testimony from his own expert concerning conversations the urologist either did or did not have with the decedent concerning the cystoscopy and whether she had, in fact, refused the procedure when it was offered. Id The court concluded it would be unfair to disallow the urologist to give his version of what happened when the plaintiff was able to give his version of what he believed occurred through his own expert. Id The plaintiff attempted to rely on Theofanis v. Sarrafi where the First District found no waiver. 339 Ill. App. 3d 460 (1st Dist. 2003). But the Fleming court pointed out that in Theofanis, the plaintiffs called the defendant as an adverse witness without eliciting any testimony about conversations the defendant had with the disabled plaintiff. Fleming, 2012 IL App (1st) B, Further, the plaintiffs in Theofanis did not elicit any testimony concerning conversations with the decedent from any of their other witnesses in their case-in-chief. Theofanis, 339 Ill. App. 3d at 479. Because the plaintiffs did not open the door, the defendant improperly testified in that case about conversations and notes he created. The Fleming court distinguished Theofanis since plaintiff purposely elicited from his own expert in his case-in-chief the testimony about the urologist s conversations with the decedent and the urologist s notes of those office visits. Fleming, 2012 IL App (1st) B, 105. Whether during deposition or trial testimony, the prudent practitioner should listen carefully to testimony by the decedent s representative to determine whether any testimony elicited in the plaintiff s case-in-chief opens the door to your client giving his or her own version of what occurred. If representing the decedent, tread carefully in eliciting testimony from an adverse witness or your own experts as it may open the door to unfavorable testimony. About the Authors Dina L. Torrisi is a partner at HeplerBroom, LLC. Ms. Torrisi focuses her practice in the area of professional liability defense and general negligence. She has extensive litigation experience in defending hospitals, physicians and nurses. Ms. Torrisi received her B.S. from University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, and her J.D. from The John Marshall Law School. She is admitted to the bars of Illinois, the Northern District of Illinois, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Ms. Torrisi is a member of the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel and Illinois Association of Healthcare Attorneys. She is also an Arbitrator for the Cook County Mandatory Arbitration Program. Edna McLain is an associate attorney of HeplerBroom, LLC. Ms. McLain graduated from the University of Illinois, Champaign- Urbana, in 1991, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, and she received her Juris Doctorate from the Saint Louis University School of Law in She is admitted to the bars of Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin and the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Illinois. Ms. McLain focuses her practice in the areas of medical malpractice, insurance defense and toxic torts. She is a member of the Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel. Page 4 of 5

5 About the IDC The Illinois Association Defense Trial Counsel (IDC) is the premier association of attorneys in Illinois who devote a substantial portion their practice to the representation of business, corporate, insurance, professional and other individual defendants in civil litigation. For more information on the IDC, visit us on the web at Statements or expression of opinions in this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the association. IDC Quarterly, Volume 23, Number Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited. Illinois Association of Defense Trial Counsel, PO Box 588, Rochester, IL , , , Page 5 of 5

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